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A Call to Vengeance: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, January 26, 2018 10:53 EST



    “We’ve managed to refine the original data now that they’re moving in-system,” First Lord of the Admiralty Admiral (ret) Thomas P. Cazenestro said as king Edward settled himself into his chair in the underground War Room. “No identification yet, but they’ve been in n-space for about eleven and a half minutes. They’re definitely headed for Manticore and there are definitely nine of them, but they’re only up to about five hundred and forty KPS and they’re still over a hundred and ninety million klicks out. Everything we’ve got is scrambling to get underway, but for the moment, Admiral Locatelli has approved Rear Admiral Eigen’s decision to hold Aegis Force in orbit until he’s reinforced with whatever can get underway.”

    “Locatelli’s still on his inspection tour of Thorson, I assume?” Edward asked.

    Cazenestro nodded. “And he’s not happy about being stuck there,” he said. “But there’s no way to get him out to join Eigen, and at least Excellent gives him good communications facilities.”

    “Yes,” Edward said. And with everything spread to hell and gone around the system, that might be critical.

    “Whoever these people are,” Cazenestro continued, “they’re holding their acceleration down to about eighty gravities, so we’ve got some time. Assuming they want a zero-zero intercept with the planet and maintain that accel, it’ll take them over four hours just to reach turnover.”

    Edward nodded, feeling an unpleasant tingle as his hands gripped the chair’s armrests. He’d held those same armrests barely three weeks ago as he watched the Manticoran forces fight their desperate battle for the Star Kingdom’s survival.

    As he’d watched his only son die.

    He’d managed to mostly shove his feelings into the back corners of his mind since then. There’d been so much death and destruction that it almost seemed that everyone on Manticore had lost at least one friend or family member. They hadn’t, of course; the Navy was too small, too understrength, for that depth of personal loss to touch all of his subjects. But in a sense, all of Manticore’s dead belonged to all of her people, and Edward, as King, needed to keep his grief at the national level and not allow his private sorrow to take precedence.

    His advisers had assured him that the people would understand if he took some time away for private mourning. But while Edward appreciated that, he also appreciated his duty.

    A king’s life is not his own. Edward’s father Michael had reminded him of that four years ago, on the day he’d abdicated in Edward’s favor.

    Michael could mourn his grandson. Edward’s daughter Sophie could mourn her brother, Queen Consort Cynthia could mourn her son, and Edward’s half-sister Elizabeth could likewise mourn her nephew. But Edward couldn’t mourn his son. Not as deeply as he wanted to. Not yet.

    And now, maybe not ever.



    “The irony is that Clegg wasn’t supposed to be in Vanguard in the first place,” Lisa said as Chomps blazed their air car through Landing traffic.

    Well above the speed limit, of course, and with complete disregard for normal traffic flow regulations. Travis winced with each veering pass; but for once, of course, there was good reason for it.

    “She wasn’t?” he asked, to take his mind off Chomps’s driving.

    “No, she was actually in line to be Locatelli’s flag captain aboard Invincible,” Lisa said. Maybe she was trying to keep her mind off Chomps’s driving, too. “Only she didn’t get it.”

    “Why not? What happened?”

    “Secour happened,” Lisa said. “After Metzger’s performance there, Locatelli pulled strings to push her up the list and give her the gold star for Invincible.”

    “I imagine Clegg was annoyed.”

    “I believe the word is pissed, Sir,” Chomps called over his shoulder.

    “Officers don’t get pissed, Townsend,” Lisa admonished him. “Women don’t sweat, either — we glow.”

    “I stand corrected, Ma’am.”

    “Actually, I don’t know that she was annoyed,” Lisa continued. “From what I’ve heard, she was more frustrated that she was supervising Vanguard’s refit during the battle and didn’t get to join the fight.”

    “She may be about to get a chance,” Travis said grimly.

    “My point exactly,” Lisa agreed. “Hence, the irony. Hold on.” She raised her uni-link. “Donnelly.” She listened a few seconds — “Acknowledged, Sir,” she said. “He’s right here — I’ll bring him on my shuttle…Yes, Sir.”

    She keyed off.

    “You’re in,” she said. “Your orders will be waiting at the shuttle.”

    Travis nodded. I wanted this, he reminded himself. I didn’t want to just sit on the ground and watch. So instead of watching from the sidelines he was going to head back into battle.

    But then, that was what he’d signed up for when he put on the uniform.

    “Thank you, Ma’am.”

    “Don’t thank me yet,” Lisa warned. “With only one functional launch tube, we’ll be going into whatever’s about to happen with one hand tied behind our backs.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “But whatever we’ve got, I’m sure you’ll come up with some clever way to use it.”

    Travis swallowed.

    “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll do my best.”



    Llyn’s tactical repeater remained singularly barren of useful information and he frowned thoughtfully.

    There were a lot of civilian transponders in detection range — well, a lot for a star system this far out in the back of beyond, anyway. But not a single military ID.

    Which wasn’t necessarily worrisome. Admiral Cutler Gensonne, who should be the current master of this system, couldn’t be certain who any newcomers might be. He knew the schedule, but schedules were prone to slippage over interstellar distances, and it probably made sense for him to be wary, at least until the newcomers’ identities could be confirmed. Llyn understood that.

    In fact, if he was surprised by anything, it was the fact that Gensonne was taking sensible precautions. That wasn’t something he normally associated with the Volsungs’ commanding officer.



    “Still no ID, Sir,” Commander Bertinelli’s voice rumbled over the speaker from CIC. “May I remind the Admiral that Bogey One has now been accelerating in-system for over fifteen minutes? That’s more than sufficient time to bring his transponders online.”

    Seated at her station, Captain Clegg winced. As usual, Bertinelli’s tone was correct enough, but she was pretty sure Admiral Eigen could hear the impatience under the words.

    That was a problem, and not one that seemed likely to go away any time soon. Eigen needed to be publicly oblivious to tensions within his flagship’s internal chain of command, Clegg knew, but he’d made it subtly clear to her that he wished she handled people a little better.

    He probably had a point. Clegg had never had a high tolerance for fools, and seldom bothered to go out of her way to hide that fact.

    Though after just three weeks commanding Aegis Force, it was likely that Eigen had independently come to the conclusion that Bertinelli did indeed fit that category. The man clearly believed Vanguard’s bridge was his rightful domain, and just as clearly resented having been banished to the Combat Information Center.

    Clegg couldn’t decide whether that was because Bertinelli opposed change simply on general principles or because it deprived him of his opportunity to shine directly under his new squadron CO’s eye. Neither one spoke very well for him, though.

    “Thank you, Commander,” Admiral Eigen said calmly. “I was aware of the time.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Clegg winced again. Set up, smack down, and Bertinelli probably hadn’t even noticed.

    Still, she couldn’t help wondering if she might have short-circuited some of this if she’d explained her thinking to her senior officers when she overhauled the arrangement of their battle stations. The unexpected test of the recent attack had demonstrated that the RMN’s practice of concentrating all the senior officers on the bridge was potentially a disaster waiting to happen. The carnage of actual combat had demonstrated the need to separate a ship’s senior officers as widely as possible to ensure that someone survived to exercise command if the bridge was hit.

    Eigen had expressed his own approval of her analysis and solution, and had assured her that the rest of the Navy would eventually come to the same conclusion. So far, it hadn’t. Even more unfortunately, neither had Bertinelli.

    The man was overdue for a little career counseling. But now was neither the time nor the place for that.

    “Force readiness, Captain?” Eigen asked.

    “The Squadron is closed up at battle stations, Sir,” Clegg reported formally, turning to face him. “Impellers are at full readiness.”

    “Good.” Eigen smiled bleakly. “I’m sure our visitors will be suitably surprised when we bring up our wedges and turn on our transponders.”

    For a moment Clegg wondered if his last four words were an implied criticism of her decision to keep Aegis Force’s transponders locked down when they went to Readiness Two instead of bringing them up, as the Book mandated. She opened her mouth to explain —

    “Surprise is always a wonderful thing to have,” the admiral added. “What’s the flagship’s status?”

    So he did understand. Good. “As ready as we can be, Sir,” she said. “We only have eleven missiles, and Laser One has some intermittent faults that the techs are still chasing down. On the plus side, the energy torpedo launchers seem to be functioning perfectly.”

    “Should we ever find ourselves close enough to use them.”

    “Yes, Sir. There’s that,” Clegg conceded.

    “Still, it does happen, doesn’t it?” Eigen continued, with another, less bleak smile.

    “Yes, Sir. It does,” Clegg said, and smiled back.

    During her slow rise up the ladder, she’d had more than one discussion with her fellow junior officers about the relative value of missiles, lasers, and energy torpedoes. Most of those fellows had endorsed the received wisdom of “best practice” navies like the Solarian League that the missile was the decisive weapon. Not even a capital ship, like Vanguard, was likely to survive a single direct missile hit, and even a close near miss could result in a mission-kill. Of course, missiles could at least theoretically be intercepted or evaded, but it still took only a single hit, which could be achieved well before the opponents entered energy range.



    Peacetime exercises had only confirmed that view on the part of most of her peers. But Clegg had always taken those exercises with a kilo-sized grain of salt. Missiles were far too expensive to waste in live-fire exercises, and she’d suspected that both accuracy and terminal effect — and the inefficacy of defensive fire — were overstated in the simulations’ assumptions. That was why she’d always argued that those exercises badly understated the importance of close-range, direct-fire weapons.

    Three weeks ago, missiles had, indeed, wreaked carnage in the opening phase of the engagement. But it had been HMS Casey’s energy torpedoes which had utterly demolished the first battlecruiser ever destroyed in combat by the Royal Manticoran Navy. Lasers, too, had played a critical role in the final slugfest before the enemy’s withdrawal from the system.

    The decisive impact of the despised short ranged weapons she’d championed for years only made her frustration at missing the battle even more acute.



    His Majesty’s Space Station Orpheus was a madhouse.

    Travis felt his head trying to swivel in continuous 360° motion as he and Lisa swam briskly across the micro-gravity section of the platform towards Damocles’ boarding tube, and not just because he couldn’t look away from the chaos. He was afraid that if he did look away, the consequences might be fatal.

    For three weeks, everyone had worried that the Star Kingdom’s attackers might return. For that same three weeks, everyone had hoped desperately that they wouldn’t, because the severely mauled Royal Manticoran Navy was in no state to resist a follow-on assault. Two battlecruisers, a heavy cruiser, and Casey were all down for major repairs, and half the ships that weren’t currently in yard hands should have been. They were in line behind more important units, but that didn’t make them remotely combat-capable.

    And of those that were theoretically combat-capable, too many, in Travis’s opinion, were scattered around the Manticore Binary System. Every combat-ready unit assigned to the capital planet’s defense — which was a grand total of three of them — were in Aegis Force. Whether or not any of the other ships in Manticore orbit — many of them at least lightly damaged — might be available to support them was an open question. He wasn’t positive about Damocles’ condition, but in theory, she, the heavy cruiser Perseus, the destroyer Eriyne, and the corvettes Aries and Taurus, constituted the entire System Reserve Force.

    The first three on that list had suffered at least moderate damage in the battle. The two corvettes had escaped unscathed, but they’d exhausted their supply of missiles, and the RMN had never really had enough of those to go around in the first place. MPARS’ attempt to get the Navy to hand over some of its precious remaining birds, unfortunately, had fallen on deaf ears.

    Now, someone had apparently realized missiles would be more useful aboard ships that could move, even wretched little corvettes, than they would sitting in stowage or in the magazines of lordly cruisers and destroyers that were dead in the water.

    Unfortunately, transferring an impeller drive missile was a nontrivial task at the best of times.

    Travis winced as one of the station’s bright yellow cold-thruster tractors drove across the crowded docking bay gallery at at least twice the maximum speed regulations allowed and well outside the normal cleared lane. The pilot never slowed down, but merely leaned on the horn button while pedestrians scattered out of his path like fish surprised by a plunging shark. The two trailers behind the tractor carried power shunts for someone’s sidewall generators, and Travis wondered which ship they were headed for.

    He hoped it wasn’t Damocles.

    The demented tractor pilot wasn’t the only lunatic on the loose. Everywhere Travis looked, parties of yard dogs ignored every conceivable safety reg as they worked frantically to get the warships ready to fly. Crews were frantically ripping away repair scaffolding, and even the nearest of the moored ships floated at least eight hundred meters from Orpheus at the end of individual boarding tubes and service umbilicals. The yellow hardsuits of the ordnance personnel threading through the whirlpool of frenetic movement were designed to be clearly visible, and Travis’s jaw tightened as one of them took a glancing hit from a discarded scaffold structural member and went tumbling away from the missile its owner had been moving. That was probably a broken bone, or worse.

    Travis knew he followed regulations and SOP more than most, and usually disapproved of those who didn’t. But even though the mad chaos underscored exactly why those regs had been written, he found himself for once mentally urging on the violators.

    They reached Damocles’ thousand-meter boarding tube and swam madly up it. It seemed a lot more than a kilometer long and there was plenty of traffic, but a hole opened magically before them as Lisa bawled for the right of way. They reached the shipboard end at last, and she waved a salute at the ensign standing post as boat bay officer of the deck without even slowing down.



    “Status on Aries and Taurus?” Admiral Eigen asked quietly, never looking away from the main plot. Bogey One had made its translation into n-space half an hour ago, during which time it had traveled almost two million kilometers towards Manticore. Its velocity was now 1,412 KPS, continuing to build at the same leisurely eighty gravities’ acceleration.

    “Aries has three birds aboard and two loading now, Sir,” Bertinelli replied from CIC. “Taurus has two stowed and two loading.”

    “Casualties in the transfer crews?”

    “Unknown, Admiral.” Bertinelli’s tone sounded faintly surprised.

    Eigen clenched his teeth. Of course the question would never have occurred to him. “Then I suggest you find out,” he bit out.

    “Yes, Sir,” Bertinelli replied.

    Eigen inhaled deeply. He shouldn’t have lost his temper that way. Not as he prepared to lead his force into combat. His officers and crews needed to know he was fully and coolly in control.

    “Orpheus reports three injuries so far, Admiral,” Bertinelli’s voice came, sounding subdued. “One of them is considered serious.”



    Damocles’ bridge was a hive of quietly tense voices and flickering displays as Lisa and Travis slipped in through the hatchway.

    “Tactical Officer reporting for duty, Sir,” Lisa called as she maneuvered her way through the tight maze of stations, displays, and other people towards the CO’s station.

    The man and woman floating together at the station turned around. Travis recognized the man as Captain Hari Marcello; the woman wasn’t familiar, but from her insignia she was obviously the XO, Commander Susan Shiflett.

    “Welcome back, Commander,” Marcello greeted Lisa. His eyes flicked to Travis. “You must be Lieutenant Long. Welcome aboard.”

    “Thank you, Sir,” Travis said, giving his best salute. “I was given orders to come aboard — ”

    “Yes, I know,” Marcello cut him off. “I was the one who approved them. I presume you remember how destroyers are laid out?”

    “Yes, Sir,” Travis said, his mind flashing back to his assignments aboard Guardian and Phoenix.

    “Good.” Marcello nodded behind him toward the double TO/ATO station at the forward end of the bridge. “Strap in and start running your pre-checks. And remember, Tacco,” he held up a warning finger to Lisa, “that you’ve only got the ventral launcher to work with.”

    “Yes, Sir.”

    Lisa pushed off the Missiles Station handhold and slipped past the captain to the Tactical Station. Travis was right behind her.

    He had indeed served aboard two other destroyers. But back on Guardian, he’d been a mere gravitics tech third class, while on Phoenix he’d been he’d been a forward weapons officer. Neither post had given him much time on the bridge, and certainly hadn’t allowed him any time at the ATO’s station.

    Fortunately, the control layout was very similar to the setup aboard Casey, where he had spent considerable time. He strapped himself in and gave everything a quick look, making quick mental notes about the handful of mostly minor differences.

    “What do you want me to do first, Ma’am?” he asked Lisa.

    “Double-check the auto cannon,” she said. “Fore first and then aft. The weapons crew is shorthanded, and we’ve been having serious trust issues with the status board feed. Chief Wrenner is working on the laser plasma feed — stay on the intercom with him until he’s finished, then run a remote diagnostic on the laser. I’ll do the missiles and launcher.”

    “Yes, Ma’am,” Travis said. A quick look at the tactical — “Three hours yet to begin raising impellers?”

    “Engineering’s still spinning up the reactors,” Lisa told him. He looked at her, and she shrugged. “Regs,” she said with a wry smile.

    “Yes, Ma’am,” he said. Yet another eminently sensible peacetime regulation that had now come back to bite them. From both safety and reactor efficiency perspectives it made sense to require ships to use shore power when moored to a space station.

    In peacetime.

    He looked at a side display, a hollow feeling settling into his stomach as he examined the icons of the ships theoretically prepared to sortie in Aegis Force’s support. Damocles, Eriyne, and Perseus, and none of them able to move for at least another three hours. By then, the intruders would be barely twenty minutes from their turnover point for a zero-zero intercept with Manticore.

    And if the invaders got past Aegis and its theoretical supports, there’d be nothing between them and the capital planet.

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